Doctors say young children who have experienced trauma from neglect, abuse or violence may cry excessively or have problems sleeping or eating.
“Quite frequently children who have experienced trauma become hypervigilant,” said Dr. James McHale, who is with the Family Study Center at the University of South Florida. “And rather than do what babies will normally do … the child is instead on edge all the time, sort of scanning the environment and wondering when the next bad thing is going to happen.”
Caregivers need training to recognize these behavioral signs or they may be misdiagnosed as other medical issues, McHale said.
An $800,000 grant from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg will help six agencies in Pinellas County improve trauma-informed care for children 3 and under.
The agencies will assess how they are already providing trauma-informed care to young children and determine areas for improvement. The idea is to change the way mental health services are provided.
The funding will also be used to ensure that all of the adults who are caring for the child know about the impacts of trauma and are working together to help themselves and the child.
“The notion of trying to understand the child within the context of their entire family system and helping to provide support so the family members can get the support that they need to help both themselves and their child is a new concept for our community,” McHale said.
Many times a child’s parents have been through similar traumatic events in their lives and never received help dealing with them. When caregivers blame parents or challenge them to take responsibility, they can re-traumatize survivors, McHale said.
“They’ve been hearing that there are problems with them their entire lives and that has lead them to want to disengage and not work with professionals,” McHale said. “The parents may never come back again if they are feeling that they are being held culpable for what is happening with their kid.”
The six agencies that are partnering on the trauma initiative are the Healthy Start Coalition, Family Enrichment Services/Adoption Related Services, Community Health Centers of Pinellas, Operation PAR and the Maternal and Child Home Visiting Programs of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. The Family Study Center at USFSP is coordinating the initiative.
Caregivers at each agency will be trained to recognize how traumatic experiences can affect health and behavior. They will use the training to create treatment spaces that are emotionally, mentally and physically safe for trauma survivors.
“We are pleased to support this important effort to advance trauma-informed care standards throughout Pinellas County,” Randall H. Russell, President and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg said in a release. “This coordinated intervention, based on the best research and data available, will prevent some of the negative health outcomes of childhood trauma in later life and contribute to a brighter future for many children in our community.”